It’s a law that has been on Ohio’s books for years, but prosecutors in Lucas County say they are just beginning to pursue a charge aimed at taking gang members involved in criminal activity off the streets.
Called participating in a criminal gang, the charge is a second-degree felony punishable by two to eight years in prison. Since this fall’s trial and conviction of Traquawn Gibson on the gang charge and a host of others, a Lucas County grand jury has indicted at least a dozen other defendants on the gang charge.
“With Gibson, it was not only about sending a message that we’re taking a stand on these defendants who have this deep gang affiliation, but also it was a really good test case for us because there was so much evidence to prove his gang involvement,” said Lindsay Navarre, an assistant county prosecutor who handled the Gibson case.
Gibson, an admitted member of the Manor Boyz, robbed and shot to death Deontae Allen after pointing a gun at him and uttering, “On Kent. Give it up” — a phrase associated with the Manor Boyz’s territorial claim to the Moody Manor housing complex on Kent Street. A month later, Gibson shot to death his former girlfriend, CreJonnia “C.J.” Bell, in the middle of a neighborhood street, purportedly to prevent her from implicating him in Mr. Allen’s murder.
His case is believed to be the first successful prosecution of the gang charge at trial in Lucas County since the law took effect in 1999.
Robert Miller, chief of the special units division for the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, said Lucas County did not routinely pursue the gang charge after it became law because prosecutors wanted to make sure the law stood up on appeal.
“There may have been some constitutional concerns, but after it withstood several appellate rulings, we felt it would be good timing to target the most violent offenders in our community, which seem to be gang-related,” Mr. Miller said.
As Toledo’s gangs become more violent, he said, the prosecutor’s office intends to be more aggressive in going after them.
Ms. Navarre and Jevne Meader, an assistant county prosecutor, recently put on a training session for their colleagues — a “how-to” workshop on proving the gang charge at trial. There are three main elements, Ms. Navarre said: Prosecutors must convince a jury the defendant actively participates in a criminal gang, must show that the gang exists and engages in a pattern of criminal gang activity, and must prove that the defendant himself purposefully promoted, furthered, assisted in, or committed crimes.
At Gibson’s trial, Ms. Navarre showed the jury Gibson’s Facebook page, in which he identified himself as a killer; photos of Gibson and other gang members throwing gang signs and wearing colors, as well as evidence of fellow gang members’ criminal convictions.
She grilled Toledo police Detective Bill Noon, a longtime member of the Toledo police gang unit, on the witness stand, asking him 201 questions in an effort to paint the picture of criminal gang activity in Toledo and, specifically, the Manor Boyz and 19-year-old Gibson.
The gang charge, Ms. Navarre said, “really packs a punch” because appellate courts have agreed that it is not an allied offense, meaning prison time for a conviction can be added on top of any sentences for other charges.
“Right now it seems gang members feel empowered by their gang affiliation and it gives them a sense of invincibility,” she said. “We want to show them that, in the end, it’s only going to hurt them, and we’re just going to come after them even harder.”
While Gibson ultimately was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for Miss Bell’s aggravated murder, Ms. Navarre said she believes it was still worthwhile to pursue the gang charge, which added eight years to his life sentence.
“It would have been easy to say, ‘We are trying him for two homicides, an aggravated robbery, [and] a felonious assault; we don’t need to go forward on the gang charge,’ but he is one of the worst as far as his gang affiliation,” she said. “He was so obviously empowered by his gang activity and his fellow gang members, and his arrogance in committing these crimes and the way in which they were committed.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-213-2134.